Ted Davis
Stephen Snobelen
 on December 16, 2016

New Atheists and the “Conflict” between Science and Religion

Stephen Snobelen discusses and critiques the New Atheists and the Conflict Thesis, or the view “that there is an essential conflict between science and religion.”


Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (2006), is just one of many books advancing a New Atheist view of religion and science (image source).

Introducing Stephen Snobelen (by Ted Davis):

In graduate school I had the distinct pleasure of studying with Isaac Newton. Well, not quite, but almost. My dissertation supervisor, the late Richard S. (“Sam”) Westfall, wrote the definitive biography of Newton and perhaps did more than anyone else to bring to light the “real” Newton, the man whose devotion to alchemy, theology, and church history greatly exceeded his interest in mathematics and physics. Although Westfall wasn’t the source of my own interest in Newton, he certainly fanned the flames. I eventually published two short pieces about Newton and I’ve done my best to follow the work of those historians who make Newton the focus of their work.

Stephen Snobelen of the University of King’s College in Halifax is one of the people whose work I most admire. A founding member of the Newton Project (now at Oxford University) and Director of the Newton Project Canada, he does extraordinarily careful studies of Newton’s voluminous theological papers, which he understands as well as anyone who has ever lived, including Newton’s own friends. After earning the BA and MA in history from the University of Victoria, Snobelen earned the PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, one of the top such programs in the world.

Imagine my excitement, then, when I learned a few years ago that he was writing an essay about New Atheist views of science and religion. In part, his essay reflects many years of experience teaching two courses about science and religion as well as a course on science and the media that engages with the ways in which science is presented in the media and popular culture. Published in a recent book about the New Atheists by Canadian scholars (pictured below), I am delighted to serialize his lucid essay for our readers at BioLogos over the next couple of months.

Dr. Snobelen wants readers to keep something in mind as you read the several parts of this series: “In this essay, I make a distinction between militant atheists and moderate atheists. Many in the former category use the kind of flawed reasoning discussed below, while many in the latter category are not necessarily hostile to religion and often want to distance themselves from the excesses of their more aggressive confrères. Some of the best and most sympathetic studies of the relationships between science and religion have been written by my colleagues in the field of history of science who are themselves sceptics, agnostics or atheists.” I would say the same thing myself, without hesitation.

Let’s now consider what Dr. Snobelen has to say about science, religion, and the New Atheists.

The New Atheists on Science and Religion (by Stephen Snobelen)

“I am Alpha and Omega,” saith the Lord, “which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”—Revelation 1:8

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”—Carl SaganCosmos (1980), opening line

In the headline for its November 2006 cover storyWired magazine announced a new cultural force, helping to canonise its name and set out its mission: “The New Atheism. No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science. Inside the crusade against religion.” There is no afterlife. Religion must be abolished. The only thing that matters is science. The New Atheists had arrived.

Among the books that helped raise the profile of this movement are Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2008); David Mills’ Atheist Universe (2004, 2006); the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2008); and most of all geneticist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). A slew of books came from the pen of the late physicist Victor Stenger, including God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (2007), The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009) and God and the Folly of Faith: the Incompatibility of Science and Religion (2012). More recently, biologist Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (2015) has kept the fire burning. Overlapping with the genre of New Atheist literature are two recent books on cosmology that espouse a materialist interpretation of science: Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Grand Design (2010) and Lawrence M. Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (2012), the latter published with an afterword by Richard Dawkins. These books have sold well and have received extensive media coverage. Their authors and many others who share their views have done numerous interviews, written many opinion pieces, and in general have emerged as a prominent presence in contemporary culture. The message of the New Atheism is simple, and this is one of the secrets to their success. It is this: science is good and religion is evil—or in the case of the two last-named books, religion is at best irrelevant.

And so it is that since the middle of the last decade the New Atheism has become a cause célèbre in the media and popular consciousness. Few of their arguments are truly novel. What is new is the militancy and forcefulness of the presentation of these arguments, as well as their persuasive packaging and the media savvy of its leading advocates. New Atheists see their mission in polemical terms as a battle for cultural dominance. The principal target is religion and they are often merciless in their assaults against its bulwarks. The chief weapon is science, although this is science made in their own image: imperialistic, positivistic, atheistic, materialistic and, above all, specifically engineered to be corrosive to religious faith.

The New Atheists contend that the claims of religion do not stand up to scrutiny. But how well does the New Atheism itself stand up to careful and thorough-going examination? This essay will demonstrate that when many of the leading arguments and stances of the New Atheists on science and religion issues are subjected to a withering critique they are shown to be ineffective, self-serving, duplicitous or untrue. What is more, the weaknesses of these positions should be evident to believer and non-believer alike.

Seven Characteristics of the New Atheism

There are many things a student of science and religion could say about the New Atheism. I will limit my survey to seven characteristic elements. These are:

1) the attack on religion (and philosophy);

2) the use and misuse of the Conflict Thesis about the history of science and religion;

3) the deployment of the Myth of the Medieval Gap (the claim that that science suffered severely under church domination during the Middle Ages) in purported histories of science;

4) the unreasonable intolerance of the views of others, including those who do not share their view of science;

5) the propensity to reductionist and essentialist understandings of both science and religion;

6) the advocacy of a philosophically naïve, epistemologically unsophisticated and imperialistic form of science known as scientism; and

7) an implied scientific pantheism.

These seven elements will be illustrated with concrete examples from the words of New Atheists themselves, starting this week with the attack on religion.

The Attack on Religion (and Philosophy)

In 2009, beginning in Britain, advocates of the New Atheism got behind a campaign to put pro-atheist ads on buses. Richard Dawkins became the most high-profile supporter of this campaign. While a few jurisdictions such as the Halifax Regional Municipality in which I live did not permit these ads to be displayed, a large number of buses on both sides of the Atlantic soon bore the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy life.” It had been decided that “probably” was a necessary qualification as one cannot prove there is no God. While this was a nice concession, the second part of the slogan—cleverly associating worry with religion and enjoyment with the lack of it—was not so nice.


Starting in 2009, hundreds of British double-decker buses—and London Underground stations—were emblazoned with advertisements like this one. (Image source)

This is an argument the New Atheists want people to buy into, and they perhaps believe that if it is repeated often enough more and more people will buy into it. But where is the evidence for it? The sound-bite slogan did not contain a footnote with empirical documentation. And who said religion must be associated with worry? After all, it seems that the New Atheists do a lot of worrying—at least about religion! Missing in the message of the slogan are the facts that atheists have higher suicide rates than religious believers and that those who practise religion have higher survival rates and life-expectancy (see Kanita Dervic et al. and Yoichi Chida et al.). As one moderate atheist not sympathetic to the rhetoric of the New Atheists put it:

Extensive empirical research has shown that religious affiliation of almost any kind is positively correlated with better mental health, measures of life satisfaction, and prosocial behaviours; which in turn are associated with enhanced physical well-being and healthy lifestyle practices; which are further related to enhanced quality of life and extended longevity. Militant atheists, it seems, are always claiming that they want to save people from the effects of religion. But save people from what, exactly? Why would they want to “save” people from the enhanced fulfilment, gratitude, optimism, health, and happiness that research proves religion helps foster? (Bruce SheimanAn Atheist Defends Religion, p. 88)

It is a good question.

This is not to say that atheists cannot have long and healthy lives, because surely they can—especially if they avoid smoking and other dangerous activities. After all, Bertrand Russell lived to the grand old age of ninety-seven (and he was a smoker). The point here is that the argument about the so-called negative effects of religion can and should be challenged. A simple statement in bright colours on the sides of buses does not make something so. Another ad from the same campaign read: “There’s probably no God. Don’t let religion divide us. Let’s enjoy life together.” It is true that religion is often tied to divisiveness. But are not the New Atheists also guilty of this, by continuously and deliberately accentuating the division between religious people and atheists? And never mind the fact that in the secular world it is often principally politics, not religion, that creates the most division. Should we abolish politics and the party system too? Surely there is more to these issues.

New Atheists, who regularly criticise religious believers when they play fast and loose with evidence (and rightly so), often turn a blind eye to distortions and factual errors perpetrated by their own side. There will be more on these distortions and errors (in future instalments), but for now I want to continue to focus on the New Atheists’ distorted view of religion. One common example of this is the oft-repeated claim that religious faith is entirely subjective and a form of gullible blindness. Several decades ago Richard Dawkins offered this definition of faith: “It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (The selfish gene, 2nd ed., p. 198).

Commonly cited though Dawkins’ sentence is, it is a definition that few religious believers would recognise. We can call this “the argument from New Atheism’s definition of faith.” Faith, we are told, is belief in the complete absence of evidence. Science is about facts. Faith is about myths. Science is constantly questioning. Faith is unquestioning belief. Now, anyone making that kind of claim about faith has surely not spent much time around thinking believers. If science is really about facts, then why didn’t Dawkins study the definitions of faith articulated by Christians themselves? The title and contents of Jerry Coyne’s 2015 book Faith vs. Fact traffics in the same simplistic and dichotomous thinking.

A definition of faith that better reflects Christianity, at least, would be this: faith is belief in the absence of complete evidence. It is perhaps best to think of this matter in terms of a continuum. On the one side we could put “blind faith,” which would be faith with no evidence. I am not aware of any believer whose faith could be defined in this way, but it is a logical possibility. On the other side, we could put positivism, which is the argument that there can be no belief without evidence. This is the position many New Atheists claim they hold (I rather doubt that they do, but that is another matter). Somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes we could place “informed faith,” belief with partial evidence. A Christian does not have complete evidence of the Resurrection of Christ, a central doctrine of Christianity set forth in the New Testament and enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed. But there are Resurrection narratives and testimonies, as well as sophisticated historical and philosophical arguments by well-educated people for the likelihood of the Resurrection of Christ. Not everyone will agree that these testimonies are sufficient to warrant faith, but these testimonies demonstrate that faith in the Resurrection of Christ has not been dreamt up out of thin air. In fact, given that even our imagination is ultimately based on our experience of the world, it could be argued that true blind faith is an impossibility in the real world.

The New Atheist definition of faith is a straw man. It is a definition applied to Christianity with hostile intent. It is an argument won on illegitimate grounds—on lack of sufficient evidence. As evangelical Christian and geneticist Francis Collins put it, “The caricature of faith that Dawkins presents is easy for him to attack, but it is not the real thing” (The Language of God, p. 164). One element of this argument is the claim that science and religion are wholly different from each other in terms of their methods, standards of evidence and rates of success. But this is not a position that would be accepted by most philosophers and sociologists of science, who have over the past several decades revealed a great deal of subjectivity in science. As the late scientist and scholar of science and religion Ian Barbour aptly put it, “Science … is not as objective, nor religion as subjective, as [has] been claimed” (Religion and Science, p. 93). Large numbers of philosophers of science would agree wholeheartedly with the first part of this statement, while religious studies scholars would confirm the second part.

In a 7 June 2010 interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News, professor Stephen Hawking declared: “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” We need to make allowances for the fact that Hawking was likely using this interview to promote his co-authored book on cosmology, The Grand Design, which was published in September of that year. But the statement raises a number of questions. First, what, exactly, is the competition? Second, why is the scientist seen by many as a universal expert? Is a scientist specially placed to comment on the profound question of whether or not there is a God? Should it be a surprise that a scientist who is probably an atheist would make these claims? And what does the statement “science will win because it works” mean? Is Hawking saying that in a contest for people’s souls, science will eventually claim victory over religion? Is he saying that the methods of science are superior to those of religion? Or is he arguing that science produces results and religion does not?

Yes, science will win at science, but this should not be a profound revelation. It is clear that Hawking wants to present this as a choice between two options. He does not countenance the possibility that both can coexist and have a fruitful exchange. But notice the trick that Hawking is playing. In measuring religion against the successes of science, he is asking religion to do something that it is not meant to do. Is religion a failure because it did not decode the structure of DNA? Is this not like saying that science is a failure because it has not of itself produced great moral codes as have the world’s religions? Hawking’s statement should be recognised for what it is: barely disguised scientific imperialism. Dawkins’ characterisation of faith falls into the same category, for when he speaks of “evidence” he means scientific evidence. He is judging religion against the standards of science, or at least his interpretation of science. 

But Hawking, along with his co-author Leonard Mlodinow, have widened the scope of their attack to include philosophy. Their 2010 book The Grand Design made headlines for its claim that God was not necessary to explain the existence of the universe. In the conclusion of their book, they write, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going” (p. 180). (For a theistic critique of the arguments for the irrelevancy of God to cosmology, see John C. LennoxGod and Stephen Hawking.) On the first page of their, book in a chapter entitled “The mystery of being,” Hawking and Mlodinow outline a series of profound questions about the nature of reality and the origin of the universe. They then add, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy had not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (p. 5). This is a nakedly imperialistic statement in favour of the dominance of science (or at least a particular form of it). But as has been pointed out, after supposedly casting philosophy on the scrap heap of history, Hawking and Mlodinow go on in the book to do philosophy—whether or not they recognise this. After I read this claim, I asked a (non-religious) philosopher colleague whether he agreed that philosophy is dead. Not surprisingly, he disagreed with Hawking and Mlodinow.

In a video-taped discussion with Dawkins in 2012, the physicist Lawrence Krauss made the following (rehearsed) comment: “Maybe I’m not qualified to talk about nothing because philosophers and theologians are experts at nothing.” Clever, but hardly fair. With this witticism he renders irrelevant at least two and a half millennia of sophisticated philosophical and theological discussion of many of the questions he attempts to address in his book. Krauss seems to be suffering from a form of historical myopia, for several of the key concepts he discusses in his book—a universe from nothing, laws of nature, and the multiverse—were either introduced or embraced by religious thinkers centuries before his birth. (I do not mean that all religious thinkers embraced multiverse. Then, as now, some religious thinkers favour and some do not favour the idea.) The very title of Krauss’s book was first formulated by the early modern German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and resonated with theological meaning. Krauss’ statement is similar to Dawkins’ claim that theology is about nothing and that it is a non-subject (although in an apparent contradiction he has also qualified this claim by acknowledging that the scientific study of religion does exist). Sadly, an examination of A Universe From Nothing and The God Delusion reveal that both Krauss and Dawkins would have benefited from training in philosophy and the philosophy of science. The epistemology (including scientific epistemology) in these works is often either naïve or non-existent.

According to Lawrence Krauss, quantum cosmology has shown that the universe “could result literally from nothing by natural processes,” so “we don’t need a creator.” As Ted explains elsewhere, it’s a shockingly naïve claim that shows how little Krauss knows about religion. (Image source)

Finally, the New Atheists have been quite successful in their arguments against religion by persuading many people to accept this equation: fundamentalist religion and abuses done in the name of religion = religion. One of the inspirations for the New Atheist movement was the terrorist attacks on 9/11. For many this was evidence that religion was in essence a form of fanaticism that causes people to commit acts of unreason. One suspects that for some New Atheists, 9/11 was not a revelation to this effect, but rather a convenient (and spectacular) argument to deploy in support of a cause to which they were already committed. But to be fair, the New Atheists have done a rather good job of collecting, itemising and classifying the various sins of religion. This role played by the New Atheists has at least one useful outcome, for just as in a parliamentary democracy the opposition helps to keep the governing party honest, so the New Atheists have, in effect, called religion to a higher standard. And many a religious person will find themselves agreeing with many of the arguments presented by the New Atheists precisely because these are in essence arguments against abuses of religion. Additionally, just as the New Atheism can play a valuable role in a pluralist society as an oppositional culture, so, too, can religion.

The facile equation (implied or stated) that religion is fundamentalism should be treated no more seriously than, say, the equation that politics equals fascism. There is abuse, scandal, dysfunctionality and autocratic behaviour in democracy and politics (election fraud, post-election violence, sexual misconduct, unfulfilled promises, and tyranny). Does this mean that democracy should be abandoned? Most would probably say, no, it means that democracy should be improved and strengthened. While the New Atheists are largely mute on this issue, science and technology also have abuse, scandal, dysfunctionality and autocratic behaviour (fudged research, retracted papers, scientists selling out to industry, cases of questionable ethics, bullying tactics and sexual harassment and sexual assault; see the Appendix below for documentation).

Do we abandon science because of these things? No, we improve it and strengthen it. Why do the New Atheists not apply this same even-handedness to religion? (Here it might be worth asking if the New Atheists should first make sure their own house is in order before charging religion with, for example, sexism and sexual harassment.) Because this would not serve their interests. What does serve their interests are selective arguments that make the best possible case for science and the worst possible case for religion. But this is hardly playing fair.

Introduction by Ted Davis

For readers who want more background for this column, BioLogos is a great place to start.  I especially recommend an essay by the distinguished historian Mark Noll and a series by James Hannam, a Catholic scholar whose book on medieval science was a finalist for a prize awarded by the Royal Society.  We also reviewed an inexpensive book (cited below) by a team of historians debunking 25 “myths” about the history of science and religion that is probably the best overall introduction for our readers to the Conflict Thesis and the reasons why virtually all modern historians reject it. Dr. Snobelen’s essay continues after the next heading.

New Atheists and the Conflict Thesis (by Stephen Snobelen)

In March 2014 astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson’s much-anticipated thirteen-episode science documentary Cosmos premiered.  The series was a reboot of the classic 1980 series of the same name hosted and co-written by the late astronomer Carl Sagan—indeed, Tyson’s script was co-written by Sagan’s widow and collaborator Ann Druyan.  After some introductory sequences that included Tyson standing on the same California ocean-side cliffs from which Sagan opened his series, along with some impressive computer animations of the universe that emphasised its immense scope and our relative smallness, the new Cosmos began its first history of science vignette. On location in Rome, following an aerial shot of the Vatican, Tyson speaks of Copernicus and his revolutionary heliocentric theory. “Many,” Tyson interjects, “like the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, took this idea as a scandalous affront to Scripture.”  Then, Tyson introduces the viewer to an early advocate of heliocentrism, the Italian monk Giordano Bruno, who, we are told, “was a natural born rebel.”

It is clear who is going to be the hero of the story. At this point, we are presented with a cartoon portraying Bruno’s free-spirited speculations about an infinite universe, his imprisonment by the Catholic Inquisition and his eventual death at the stake for heresy in Rome in 1600. Tyson’s narration includes these lines: “He dared to read the books banned by the Church. And that was his undoing. In one of them, an ancient Roman, a man dead for more than 1500 years, whispered to him of a universe far greater, one as boundless as his idea of God.”  During this narrative, we see Bruno sneak into a room and lift up some floorboards to reveal a hidden copy of De rerum natura (On the nature of things), a famous anti-religious work by the ancient Roman poet Lucretius.  It’s a dramatic scene, and like many good dramas it is full of conflict.  Although no explicit or overarching statements are made about science and religion, and while Tyson makes it clear that Bruno believed in God and that an infinite universe befitted an infinite deity, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the juxtapositions of carefully scripted commentary with images of dark-faced Inquisitors is meant to create the impression that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. As the first historical episode in the series, it also helps set the tone for the rest. The Conflict Thesis was given one of its highest profile pop culture moments.


Ted notes: Andrew Dickson White’s 2-volume screed, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), has profoundly influenced American thinking about religion and science right down to our own day. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Conceived in the French Enlightenment, the Conflict Thesis was born in the late Victorian period. Its classic expressions are found in scientist-turned-historian John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875) and university administrator-cum-historian Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). As dramatic as their titles are, there is at least some nuance in the books’ contents. Despite his sweeping title, Draper’s main target was the Catholic Church, not Christianity as a whole, and White identified his target as “dogmatic theology” rather than Christianity per se. (See Jon H. Roberts, “‘The idea that wouldn’t die’: The warfare between science and Christianity,” and David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science.”)  In the conclusion to his Introduction, White declares “that in the field left to them—their proper field—the clergy will more and more, as they cease to struggle against scientific methods and conclusions, do work even nobler and more beautiful than anything they have heretofore done.” Moreover, it was his “conviction … that Science, though it has evidently conquered Dogmatic Theology … will go hand in hand with Religion” (vol. 1, p. xii), by which he seems to mean a liberal Christianity of the social Gospel kind.

While a careful consideration of the context of these two books helps to explain their original motivations, it is nevertheless the case that collectively Draper and White’s biased, selective and tendentious accounts did much damage to relations between science and religion by introducing the metaphors of conflict and warfare to popular and even scholarly understandings of the history of science and religion. Both books are still regularly quote-mined and cited as authoritative almost as if no history of science has been done in the intervening one hundred and twenty years.

The Conflict Thesis—which claims that there is an essential conflict between science and religion—continues to be promoted by some intellectuals and scientists and is seemingly the default position of the media and popular culture.  It has long been left behind by most professional historians of science, irrespective of their own belief or non-belief.  Yet, the Conflict Thesis is a foundation stone of Stephen Hawking’s claim, “Science will win because it works,” because this claim implies that there is an ongoing conflict between science and religion that will end with religion being vanquished. Now, conflict does exist and can actually be a good thing in some instances—but it is hardly the only game in town. If there really were an essential conflict between science and religion, it would be hard to account for the large number of excellent scientists who are strongly religious.

Conflict as Coyne of the Realm

A territorial metaphor is often allied with the martial metaphor of the Conflict Thesis. Science, we are told, is constantly taking territory from religion. Thus, in a 2010 opinion piece entitled “Science and religion aren’t friends,” biologist Jerry A. Coyne wrote:

Science nibbles at religion … relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science. … Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.

Coyne comments in like fashion in his recent book Faith vs. Fact, the title of which inscribes (and actively promotes) conflict between science and religion: “Science and religion … are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe. In this goal religion has failed miserably, for its tools for discerning ‘truth’ are useless. These areas are incompatible in precisely the same way, and in the same sense, that rationality is incompatible with irrationality” (p. xvi).

Leaving aside the unpleasant triumphalism and arrogance of Coyne’s comments, the paradigm he is promoting is clear: science is on the march and religion is in retreat. This is a variant of the common idea that science is an agent of secularisation, driving back religion with every step. There is no doubt that in the western world traditional religious belief has declined, but the causes are multivariate. The main problem with the science and secularisation thesis is that it assumes that science is driving secularisation, rather than individual scientists and the culture of science being driven by secularisation (See the essays by Brooke and Martin, cited below).  For Coyne there is no possibility of a partnership, because there is an irreconcilable conflict between the two. What his account misses is a kind of tautology already hinted at in the previous column: the fact that science discovers and delivers material explanations is hardly surprising, as that is what science is designed to do. What is more, the large number of believing scientists in the U.S. (for example) is written out of his paradigm—and never mind that most historians of science (secular and religious) believe that Christianity played a largely positive role in the emergence of modern science.

Nor does the absence of theistic language in scientific discourse necessarily imply that science has eliminated religion. Thus, when The Royal Society of London was founded in the 1660s, they enshrined a policy of restricting religious language in their work. In his early account of the Society, Thomas Sprat noted that “the Royal Society is abundantly cautious not to intermeddle in Spiritual things.” While this bare fact may at first glance appear to support Coyne’s contention that “Science nibbles at religion,” one needs to look at both the motivation behind this policy and the big picture. It turns out that the motivation to avoid religious discussions was due in large part to the increasing religious pluralism in England at the time. By avoiding religious discussions, Royal Society Fellows of different religious dispositions could work together in amity—something that helped Isaac Newton when he became president of that august institution in 1703, since he was a heretic. Despite the restriction on religious discourse, virtually all the earliest members of the Society were pious Christians (some even churchmen) and the founding charter of the Society (1663) proclaimed that its work was dedicated “to the glory of God the Creator, and the advantage of the human race.” Sprat himself was an Anglican priest (later a bishop).

More than that, religion helped provide social legitimacy for the Society and its scientific work was seen as supporting natural theology (see Peter Harrison, “Religion and the Early Royal Society”). Thus, in this case, appearances can be deceiving. Similarly, the many religious scientists who practise science today abide by the customary policy of methodological naturalism and do not bring God or religion into their science or scientific publications. In these cases the lack of religious language or appeals to the divine do not reflect a lack of belief in God. In fact, something vaguely like methodological naturalism dates right back to the Middle Ages.

Part of Coyne’s secularisation argument hinges on what we mean by “secularisation.” For many, it describes a society becoming less religious. But in the West, it is also intertwined with a process in which the rise of religious pluralism brings with it a practical need for civil society, government, the education system and the public sphere to avoid prioritising one religion. This often results in a reduction in affirmations of religion in the public sphere, as in Canada. It does seem plausible, on the other hand, that the long-established methodological naturalism in science has for some tacitly reinforced a sense that science is not compatible with theism. If so, this was not universally the original intention for the policy—nor need it be the case even in the twenty-first century.


ABOVE: No historian has done more to debunk the Conflict Thesis than John Hedley Brooke, shown here in 2012 at the Science and Secularization Symposium, sponsored by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. Photograph by Conrad Erb, courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0 (image source).

Richard Dawkins and the God-of-the-Gaps

Like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins makes a claim of the inexorable retreat of religion, in his agenda-driven afterword to Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing (2012):

the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ shrivels up before our eyes as you read these pages. If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe from Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating. (p. 191)

Dawkins wants us to believe Krauss’s book should be “devastating” to theists. Since millions of Christians find evolution perfectly compatible with their theistic faith and millions of other Christians hold various creationist perspectives on origins, describing Darwin’s magnum opus as “biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism” is at best an exaggeration. It is valuable, however, for helping to clarify how Dawkins sees the world. And to compare Krauss’ interesting, but slender and popular work to one of the most important works in the history of science is just plain silly and does a disservice to Darwin. The Origin of Species is read in my university’s Great Books programme. I can guarantee that Krauss’s book never will be, even though it contains some useful explanations of current astrophysics. This kind of self-congratulatory back-slapping does not do much to promote deep thinking on cosmology and astrophysics—but it does help reinforce the Conflict Thesis in the public sphere. Dawkins uses strong words here and elsewhere in his promotion of the Conflict Thesis, but what he is peddling is a construction—and a self-serving one at that. Once we recognise this, it is the Conflict Thesis rather than “the last remaining trump card of the theologian” that shrivels up before our eyes.

There is need for some balance here. Sometimes theologians and other believers really have argued that a particular feature of the universe or nature can be explained only by God, exclusive of natural causes, though I would argue that this is much less common than frequently claimed. In such cases, believers may have set themselves up for the critique that science is continuously taking over their territory. This myopic strategy is often called the “God-of-the-gaps,” because when current science fails to explain something, God is invoked to fill that gap in our knowledge. Dawkins is making just such a claim in his afterword to Krauss’s book.

Insofar as some religious people deploy God-of-the-gaps arguments, the New Atheist assertion that religious explanations are gradually giving way to scientific ones may have some purchase. Yet, as is well known to those who work on the history of science and religion, the critique of God-of-the-gaps reasoning actually originated as an internal one, coming from Christian theologians and scientists rather than atheists. The Oxford mathematician and chemist Charles Alfred Coulson, a devout Methodist, helped canonise the God-of-the-gaps critique in his 1955 book, Science and Christian Belief. Before him, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered a similar critique. Interestingly, Dawkins begins his own critique of the God-of-the-gaps by referring to Bonhoeffer’s, speaking of those like Bonhoeffer who raise this concern as “thoughtful theologians” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 151).

Coulson wasn’t actually the first to use the words “God” and “gaps” in close proximity. The Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond (a friend of legendary American preacher Dwight L. Moody) raised concerns about it in the late Victorian period: “There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps—gaps which they fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps!” (The Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man, p. 333.) The idea expressed by Drummond and Colson connects with some earlier conversations in which different terms were used.For example, three hundred years ago one of Newton’s close confidants, theologian and philosopher Samuel Clarke, got into a protracted argument about God and nature with the great German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz contended that in philosophy one must stick with natural explanations, otherwise one could lazily explain anything by calling on God as the only explanation; as he famously put it, “Deus ex machina,” God from the machine (cited below). Clarke’s own view in this debate was similar to what Coulson said in 1955: “Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all” (Science and Christian Belief, p. 22). Thus, one theological response to the limitations of the God-of-the-gaps is to avoid singular causation and either/or thinking: the universe can simultaneously have physical and theistic explanations. On this view, since God works with the material world, material causation and effects are still there to study. Here we see that the greater conflict actually comes from pitting a singular causation (God-of-the-gaps) theistic argument against a singular causation (physical objects and processes) atheistic argument.

The Main Problem with the Conflict Thesis: Failure to See Real Complexity

All of this aside, the chief problem with the Conflict Thesis is that it is based substantially on the historiographical and philosophical sin of essentialism. To speak in unqualified terms of “conflict” between “science” and “religion” in the past and present is to invoke three essences: that “conflict” is a persistent historical constant; that “religion” is a thing with core essences that remain fixed and unchanging across time irrespective of cultural context; and that “science” is an identifiable rational practice that can be located from Antiquity to the present. Yet those who study the history of science and religion speak of particularity and complexity rather than the general and essential. One such scholar is John Hedley Brooke, who in a 1991 book advanced what is now called the Complexity Thesis for science and religion:

There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts. Not only has the problematic interface between them shifted over time, but there is also a high degree of artificiality in abstracting from the science and religion of earlier centuries to see how they were related (Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, p. 321, bold type not in the original).

History is complex and it is the historian’s job to recover this complexity.

Proponents of the Conflict Thesis generally assert or assume that conflict is an inherently bad thing. Or, if they characterise it as a good thing, they mean that it is good because it involves science beating down religion. But any thorough consideration of conflict must acknowledge that there are all kinds of conflict in human affairs: between political parties, between sports teams, between corporations, between philosophical schools, between religious movements and, yes, even within science. Much of this we accept as part of the human condition and some of it we take to be good.

Conflict, including the conflict of competing ideas, can be healthy and act as evidence that we are not living in an autocracy. It is equally clear that some conflict is unhelpful, creates unnecessary stress and hostility and can even grow when it gets trapped in feedback dynamics. An example of this reflexivity in science and religion conflict is seen in the publication of Jerry Coyne’s book, Faith vs. Fact. Coyne has said more than once that it was push-back from some religious believers against his earlier book, Why Evolution is True, that led him to study science-and-religion relations and ultimately come to the conclusions he does in Faith vs. Fact. The religious believer, especially those who oppose Coyne’s views on evolution, should attempt to see the world as Coyne sees it and try to understand why he might think science and religion relations are by nature agonistic. Relatedly, some religious people promote the Conflict Thesis in their own way by characterising or implying that science is hostile to faith. Surely this is one reason why the conflict metaphor has such longevity: it is endorsed by significant numbers on both sides. But these camps tend to shout from the more extreme ends of the spectrum.

Furthermore, if the Conflict Thesis is problematically essentialistic (as I have argued), then so is its polar opposite, which we could call “the Harmony Thesis.” Yes, there has been a good deal of harmony between science and religion. In my main period of study, the early modern period, there is much more harmony, mutual reinforcement and compatibility than conflict. But conflict has existed and continues to exist. It may be good or bad depending on the example, but the goal of understanding the history of science and religion accurately is not served by denying conflict altogether. One thing the Conflict Thesis and Harmony Thesis both do is latch on to particular examples, interpret them in a way favourable to the cause and then extrapolate outwards to generalise from these instances. Thus, the conflict and harmony metaphors are often used in totalising ways that crowd out other metaphors or models. Neither is acceptable to the historian who strives to dwell in the world of the messy historical realities.

Ted notes: The late David C. Lindberg, a leading historian on ancient and medieval natural philosophy, helped pioneer the modern historical view that the Conflict Thesis is fundamentally wrong (image source).

To see what I mean, pick up a copy of a recent book edited by Ronald Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), in which a group of historians debunk twenty-five common myths and stereotypes about the relationship between science and religion. The Conflict Thesis is the foundation for many of the myths deconstructed in this useful book. The book’s credibility comes not only from the professional qualifications of its contributors, but the fact that they represent a range of personal beliefs, all the way from evangelical Christian (such as Ted Davis) to atheist (such as Michael Ruse). Written for general readers, it’s an assigned text for the two science and religion courses I teach at King’s College. (I offer a fuller account of the book that expands on some of its main arguments and discusses problems with the Harmony Thesis in “Declaring war on the Conflict Thesis: a review essay.”)

What of the world of historical reality? The irritating thing about historians is that they take a lot of fun out of cherished historical myths. The tragic case of the Italian monk Giordano Bruno is one of those myths. It’s now time to return to the cartoon presented in the first episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos (see the previous column) for an encounter with the messiness of history. How does it measure up to history? The answer is that it’s a mixture of truth, misleading intimations and outright error. Yes, Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600, but for religious heresy—not for holding definable scientific ideas. Although Tyson doesn’t explicitly refer to Bruno as a martyr for science (as many did in previous generations), and while some of the religious heresies are duly noted, why is his life and death used as the first historical example in a science documentary? Bruno’s belief in an infinite universe is of course relevant to the very title of Cosmos. Tyson explicitly says that Bruno was no scientist and that his beliefs about an infinite universe were a “lucky guess”. But the intended message behind the story of a free-spirit being condemned in the worst possible way by religious authorities was not lost on secular supporters along with both religious and secular critics, as the vigorous debates about the vignette that cropped up online as soon as it aired demonstrate. Discover blogger Corey S. Powell said that Tyson picked the wrong hero, leading astronomer Steven Soter, co-writer of Cosmos, to defend the choice, because “Freedom of thought is the life blood of science.” At the same time, historian Tim O’Neill, an atheist, argued that “Cosmos got the story of Bruno Wrong,” on precisely the same grounds that I have given here: “Bruno is a simple answer to a intricate question. Nuance and complexity are the first casualties in a culture war.”

Tyson’s narrative and the animation make the misleading claim that Lucretius’ De rerum natura had been banned by the Catholic Church. Not so—it was in fact available in print. It’s not just what Tyson says, it’s what he doesn’t say. As inspiration for his ideas, Bruno credits not only Lucretius—a Roman Epicurean and a kind of practical atheist—but also Nicolaus of Cusa, who wrote of a universe of indefinite size a century before Bruno. Cusa was a philosopher, astronomer and Catholic priest who eventually became a cardinal. But Cosmos leaves Cusa out of its tale.

The inclusion of the tragic story of Giordano Bruno in the first episode is no accident. For decades prior to the documentary’s release there has been a pop culture myth about Bruno being a martyr for science. Bruno’s death is commonly seen as emblematic of what happens with free-thinking scientists encounter close-minded “religionists.” Bruno, was a martyr, to be sure—but for theological heresy, religious insubordination and occultic views, not science. The idea that Bruno was a martyr for science was debunked convincingly before the Cosmos vignette was written and produced (see the chapter by Jole Shackelford in Galileo Goes to Jail, mentioned above).

What of Tyson’s dig at the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther? Here is a missed opportunity. There is an anecdote in which Luther disparages the idea that the earth is in motion, but he does not mention Copernicus by name in the anecdote, nor is there any mention of Copernicanism or heliocentrism in his writings. But whatever the well-educated Luther may or may not have thought of Copernicus (whose book came out only three years before the Reformer’s death), once again the problem with Tyson and his team’s history is that they misrepresent through their selection of data. Thus, we hear nothing of Georg Joachim Rheticus, the young Lutheran astronomer who was Copernicus’s earliest convert and who published precis of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory three years before the release of De revolutionibus (1543). Owing to Rheticus, Copernicus’ book was printed in Nuremberg, a Lutheran town. Another early convert to Copernicanism was another Lutheran, Michael Maestlin, one of Johannes Kepler’s teachers at Tübingen. Kepler himself published a Copernican work in 1596 and, although some of the faculty at Tübingen asked him to refrain from including an argument that heliocentrism was compatible with the Bible, Kepler’s Astronomia nova (1609) included this argument. Kepler’s astronomy was powerfully motivated by both Pythagorean number mysticism and his profound Christian theism. He saw himself and other astronomers as “priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature.” It is true that the University of Wittenberg advocated using Copernicanism only as a calculating device (the so-called Wittenberg interpretation of Copernicanism), yet this got Lutheran astronomers talking about the theory and teaching it to students. It is also true that the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, another Lutheran, believing the Bible to teach a stationary earth, felt able to come up with a version of geocentrism that incorporated only some of the mathematical advantages of heliocentrism without putting the earth in motion. Yet he also backed up his (correct) rejection of crystalline spheres with Rabbinic exegesis on the watery firmament of Genesis 1. Thus, the story of Lutheranism and Copernican was far from entirely conflictual. This is why historians prefer the Complexity Thesis, or something like it. The version of Bruno’s story in Cosmos is unfortunately a cartoon in both senses of that term. We have to conclude that the animation was animated by the Conflict Thesis, or something like it.

Not all non-believers embrace the Conflict Thesis and uniform hostility towards religion. Philosopher of science and atheist Michael Ruse has decried Dawkins’ efforts to label Darwinism atheistic, because in Ruse’s view this will only confirm creationists’ worst nightmare about evolution. Dawkins has spoken of Ruse as belonging to “the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” (The God Delusion, p. 91) for taking an “accommodationist” position of religion and evolution. Kip Thorne, the retired CalTech physicist who was the scientific advisor for the science fiction film Interstellar (2014), said the following in an interview for The Guardian: “There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God, ranging from an abstract humanist God to a very concrete Catholic or Mormon God. There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God.” In a different kind of example, the renowned entomologist E. O. Wilson (no friend of creationism) has argued that, for the sake of the environment, scientists and religious people should put aside any metaphysical differences and work together (The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth). And of course many scientists are also religious.

Nevertheless, there are no signs that the Conflict Thesis is going to disappear anytime soon. For many it is seemingly too intuitive. For others, including the New Atheists, it is just far too useful.


“The Last Stand—Science Versus Superstition,” chromolithograph by Udo J. KepplerPublic domain image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

Liberal Protestants and the Conflict Thesis (Ted Davis)

I’ve been thinking about writing a column like this for a long time.  I kept putting it off, because I’m finishing a research project related to it and I wanted to put my ideas first into a scholarly publication before putting them on BioLogos.

I changed my mind after reading insightful comments about the Conflict Thesis from James Ungureanu, a young historian who is doing research on John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White—the people who gave us the classic version of the Conflict Thesis.  Mr. Ungureanu’s main point is entirely right: rather than intentionally advancing unbelief (like the New Atheists of our day), Draper and White “were pitting two distinct theological traditions against one another: a progressive liberal Christianity against a more traditional conservative Christianity.”

I drew that conclusion myself many years ago, but my initial thoughts were only partially formed and I published them in a place where not many historians would find them: namely, a short reflection on the work of John Polkinghorne that I was asked to write for an issue of the journal Zygon that was dedicated to his work. As I stated in the abstract:

Perhaps the greatest irony about the contemporary religion-science dialogue is the fact that, despite their own strongly articulated denials, many thinkers implicitly accept the “warfare” thesis of A. D. White—that is, they agree with White that traditional theology has proved unable to engage science in fruitful conversation. More than most others, John Polkinghorne understands just how badly White misread the history of Christianity and science, and how much theology has been impoverished by its failure to challenge this core assumption of modernity.

This point is not identical to that of Mr. Ungureanu, but it’s pretty close.  His work focuses on Draper and White themselves, whereas I’m focusing on their legacy. Where he shows that Draper and White were trying to advance “a progressive liberal Christianity,” I will show (in a forthcoming book) that the “modernist” Protestants of the early twentieth century (who advocated a very progressive, very liberal type of Christianity) uncritically accepted the Conflict Thesis wholesale as a crucial component of their worldview.  

The cartoon above is just one piece of evidence for this, though a very powerful one.  I lack space here to make the case in full, but I’ll connect a few of the dots so readers can have a clear glimpse of the larger picture.

Prologue: Asa Gray Denies Conflict between Evolution and Christian Theology

In 1880, twenty-one years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the first American Darwinian, Harvard botanist Asa Gray, spoke to theology students at Yale. Thinking of the halcyon days when the revered Benjamin Silliman set the tone for natural history at Yale, Gray recalled an earlier time “when schemes for reconciling Genesis with Geology had an importance in the churches,” and many saw a great need “to bring the details of the two into agreement by extraneous suppositions and forced constructions of language.” Furthermore, our “veneration” for the Old Testament “is not impaired” by the fact that Genesis “is not an original but a compiled cosmogony,” for the older material in it was “purged of polytheism and Nature-worship, and impregnated with ideas which we suppose the world will never outgrow.”  The “fundamental note” of Genesis is “the declaration of one God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible,–a declaration which, if physical science is unable to establish, it is equally unable to overthrow.” Thus, he confessed, “I accept Christianity on its own evidence, and I am yet to learn how physical or any other science conflicts with it any more than it conflicts with simple theism.” (Natural Science and Religion, pp. 7-9 and 106)

Asa Gray in 1864 (image source).

If you are inclined for a moment to read Gray’s optimistic, even winsome, embrace of modernity as the confession of a thoroughgoing theological modernist, take a deep breath, for he was about to reveal himself as a traditional Christian, despite his wholehearted acceptance of evolution. The frankly Incarnational understanding he went on to express leaves no other possibility to the interpreter: “I take it that religion is based on the idea of a Divine Mind revealing himself to intelligent creatures for moral ends.” Indeed, “revelation culminated … in the advent of a Divine Person, who, being made man, manifested the Divine Nature in union with the human,” and “this manifestation constitutes Christianity.” The Incarnation was for Gray simply “the crowning miracle,” attended by other miracles that he also accepted. In this way, he could consistently proclaim his acceptance of Darwin alongside his faith in Christ, a faith whose “essential contents” were “briefly summed up” in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds (pp. 106-109).

Main Event: Protestant Modernists Find Conflict Everywhere

Fast forward to 1936, three years after Shailer Mathews retired as Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, the geographic and theological center of Protestant modernism in North America. In the autobiography he published that year, aptly titled New Faith for Old, in a fascinating chapter called “Religion and Science,” he had this to say: “It is yet to be seen how far intelligence is consonant with religion.” What follows is pure unadulterated Andrew Dickson White. “As natural forces replace Divinity and bacteria replace devils, the area of fear within which religions have had control contracts.” To become credible for modern times, he argued, religion had to recognize what science had done–and what it had done to religion.

“Laboratory science did something more than lead to research. It undermined habits of thought and substituted the tentativeness of experiment for authoritative [theological] formulas. True, there were some scientists like Asa Gray who championed Darwinian evolution while holding to the Nicene CreedJohn Fiske used evolution in setting forth a cosmic philosophy which included theism and belief in immortality; [Joseph] LeConte did much the same. But these men were not representative churchmen. When [Henry Ward] Beecher and other liberal preachers accepted evolution their evangelical brothers looked upon them with suspicion. Scientific method had not [yet] reached religious thought. It was only when educational processes had ceased to be controlled by the study of classical literature and grew more contemporary [owing to science], that orthodox theology was felt to be incompatible with intellectual integrity.” (New Faith for Old, pp. 219-21, my bold type)

Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Likewise, the radical modernist theologian Gerald Birney Smith, who taught a correspondence course on modern theology at Mathews’ seminary, recommended White’s book as “a most readable and striking account of the gradual substitution of the empirical method for the method of conformity to authorized doctrine in various realms of thought. It reflects the scientific man’s impatience with the traditional theological ideal” (cited below, p. 10).

To be sure, Mathews and his fellow modernists had much in common with Gray. They believed that evolution and religious faith were not contradictory; they believed that the world still bore evidence of purposeful intelligence–indeed physicist Arthur Holly Compton, who belonged to the same church as Mathews, spoke bluntly of needing “intelligent design” to understand the history of the universe. What they did not believe was the Nicene Creed. The irony here is profound: the God worshiped by the leading American evolutionist of Darwin’s day was still in a meaningful sense the “maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen,” yet the leading American theological educator two generations later could not accept this–allegedly because of science! For Mathews, the fundamental problem with what Gray himself had called “theistic evolution” was not that it accepted evolution, but that it tried to be genuinely theistic in doing so.

Mathews did sometimes give the appearance of not believing in God at all. One of his friends at Chicago, physicist Robert Millikan, recalled an occasion when Mathews was asked whether he believed in God, only to reply, “That, my friend, is a question which requires an education rather than an answer” (The Autobiography of Robert A. Millikan, pp. 286-7). Like Mathews, Millikan also wanted a new Christian faith to replace the old, the practical religion of Jesus without the Jesus of traditional religion. A Congregationalist with Unitarian convictions who strove to bring Caltech back to its Universalist religious roots, Millikan wanted a God who was wholly immanent within the world and not at all transcendent over it–a God incapable of performing miracles or becoming literally incarnate in Christ.

Nothing was more important to many modernists than the God they found within the evolutionary process itself, rather than in putative explanatory gaps in that process. What might be missed, however, is the degree to which some pitted divine immanence against divine transcendence—not as two crucial poles in an ongoing dialectic, but as a stark choice to be made with finality, in which the transcendent God was effectively discarded entirely.

A pertinent example comes from Samuel Christian Schmucker, frequently a featured speaker at Mathews’ beloved Chautauqua Institution and one of the most successful popularizers of evolution and eugenics in the early twentieth century. Schmucker all but equated his immanent God with the evolutionary process itself. “The laws of nature,” he stated, “are not the decisions of any man or group of men; not even–I say it reverently–of God. The laws of nature are eternal even as God is eternal.” They are “not the fiat of almighty God, they are the manifestation in nature of the presence of the indwelling God” (quoting his 1926 pamphlet, Through Science to God). His diffusively conceived God was co-eternal with the world and virtually indistinguishable from the laws of nature. The evolutionary progress those laws had produced was the ultimate source of his hope. I cannot escape the impression that White would have loved this, had he lived to see it.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, the modernist pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Public domain photograph (ca. 1922), New York Public Library Digital Collections.

White’s two-volume screed had first appeared in 1896, just in time to precipitate an intense spiritual crisis in the life of the young man later regarded by Martin Luther King, Jr. (no mean preacher himself), as the greatest preacher of the twentieth century–Harry Emerson Fosdick. Following his first year at Colgate University, Fosdick encountered White, and its effect on him was devastating. As he wrote in his autobiography,

“What finally smashed the whole idea of Biblical inerrancy for me was a book by Andrew D. White …  It seemed to me unanswerable. Here were the facts, shocking facts about the way the assumed infallibility of the Scriptures had impeded research, deepened and prolonged obscurantism, fed the mania of persecution, and held up the progress of mankind. I no longer believed the old stuff I had been taught. Moreover, I no longer merely doubted it. I rose in indignant revolt against it.” (For the Living of These Days, An Autobiography, p. 52)

Like many other modernists, Fosdick lifted the “conflict” picture of White and Draper uncritically from his plate and dutifully swallowed it whole, taking its alleged “facts” as gospel truths to illuminate a new path to righteousness.

Edwin Grant Conklin was one of the leading public voices for science in the 1920s and 1930s.

One of Fosdick’s countless admirers, Princeton biologist Edwin Grant Conklin, a leading public intellectual between the world wars, had originally endorsed Asa Gray’s religious position as a junior scientist. As he grew older, however, he changed his mind, culminating a process that had begun during his graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, where he was deeply influenced by the naturalistic credo of his mentor, William Keith Brooks. As Conklin put it, Brooks held that “the term supernatural is due to a misconception of nature; nature is everything that is.” In a spiritual autobiography that he wrote at the end of his life for a book edited by Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, he said, “With the progress of science, the area of the supernatural and miraculous has gradually grown smaller,” yet “supernatural agencies or occurrences constitute the very foundations of many religions.” Conklin saw his own spiritual journey as one that “orthodox friends” might interpret as “descending steps,” leading him further from the traditional Methodist faith of his youth. “My gradual loss of faith in many orthodox beliefs,” he recalled, “came inevitably with increasing knowledge of nature and growth of a critical sense.” Significantly, he identified Draper and White as formative influences. As he saw it, they “showed the impossibility of harmonizing many traditional doctrines of theology with the demonstrations of modern science” (“Spiritual Autobiography,” pp. 72-3 and 57-58).

By making such theological moves and holding such negative attitudes toward traditional Christian theology, the modernists actually eliminated (for them) the very possibility of having a genuine Christian dialogue with science, rather than just a monologue dominated by science–precisely the result that White sought wholeheartedly and so successfully to bring about. Of this there can really be no doubt: although White denied genuine conflict between “religion” and science, he did more than anyone else to create the very type of conflict that is so stridently embraced by so many today, in which science tries to drive Christian theology into intellectual disrepute. And he did all of that, as we now know, on the basis of bogus history–despite the salient fact that he had been the first president of the American Historical Association.

Postlude: BioLogos and the Conflict Thesis

Intellectual descendants of yesterday’s modernists continue to uphold the Conflict Thesis. To offer just one very prominent example, the retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, believes that science has (somehow) made theism incredible, so he tries to take Christianity “beyond theism.” The New Atheists go even further. I won’t steal any of Stephen Snobelen’s thunder, but I should point out that they proclaim what I call the “Hard Conflict Thesis,” while White’s descendants accept the “Soft Conflict Thesis.” Proponents of the former want to rid the world entirely of religion in any form—except their own “dinosaur religion,” which they naively do not even recognize as a form of religion.  Proponents of the latter want to keep religion, but reduce it to Christian ethics by removing traditional theology, thus avoiding (in their view) any conflict with science. To the extent that both groups need White’s Conflict Thesis to make their narratives work, they have built their castles on sand.

White and his modernist followers took the wrong road to paradise. On this I speak for all of us at BioLogos. Despite unfounded rumors to the contrary, we haven’t swallowed White whole, or even in part. Like Asa Gray, we believe in the divine creation of the universe, we embrace the full divinity of Jesus, and we look for the Resurrection of the dead. We find no conflict between the findings of Darwin and the words of the Nicene Creed. We don’t believe that science has been victorious over Christian theology—indeed, there never was such a war in the first place.

About the authors

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.
Stephen Snobelen Headshot

Stephen Snobelen

Dr. Snobelen's research and teaching interests include history of science (early modern and nineteenth century), science and religion, science in popular culture, the popularization of science, radical theology in the early modern period, and millenarianism. His primary research efforts are currently devoted to interpreting Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts and understanding the relationships between Newton’s science and his religion. Dr. Snobelen has consulted for and appeared in television documentaries on Isaac Newton, including Newton: The Dark Heretic. His most popular course is on science fiction film, which he uses to introduce historical, philosophical, and ethical themes about science and technology to undergraduates in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. He and his wife Julia have four children who help keep them grounded in the more important things of life.